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Grandpa's Gift

Passion for Wine Spans Generations

I find it odd that I’m writing website features about wine.  I certainly don’t profess to be all-knowledgeable on the subject.  After all, I only really began my love affair with fine wine 10 years ago.  But genetically, I guess, it lay dormant in me from the time of my earliest memories.

As was the case with countless immigrants at the beginning of the last century, my grandfather Anton Martino came to this country in 1903 in search of a better life.  Although I suspect he found it, working 40 years in a coalmine will tell you what the life he left behind must have been like.  And again, like so many others, Grandpa brought to Roanoke, Illinois, a part of his Italian culture, blending it with this new world he found himself in.Grandpa's grape arbor

One of those cultural carryovers was the art of winemaking.  I’m not sure when he constructed his grape arbor, but for as long as I can remember, there it was right outside the back door of his house -- the house that was right next door to our house for my entire childhood.  When my dad came home from WWII, Grandpa gifted him with the empty lot right next door to his house on Monroe Street so Dad built our house there and, like so many immigrant families of that time, we were raised with a multi-generational influence.

I remember Grandpa dunking Italian bread in a stem-less wine glass and letting me take a bite.  It’s actually one of my earliest memories.  The dry, red wine was not a pleasurable taste for my four-year-old palate and while I’m certain I tasted Grandpa’s wines in later years, by the time I was in my teens the taste of dry red wine was not something I would even try anymore.

And there it stayed til April 1999 when Carol’s sister Cheryl came to Peoria so we could celebrate her birthday with dinner at Paparazzi, a nice Italian restaurant we frequented.  Paparazzi normally has a wine special every night, and they set a bottle of the featured selection on each table as an enticement.  That evening, it was a Merlot.  Cheryl said, “Oh, let’s have a bottle of this.  You’ll have a glass of wine with me for my birthday, won’t you Dan?” as I sat there drinking my Miller Lite.  “Sure.” I said, thinking to myself, “Oh no, red wine.”

Me and Grandpa circa 1967Well, I did have a glass of Merlot that night.  And I remember so clearly, my thoughts after that first taste; this was not what I remember Grandpa’s wine tasting like at all!  Long story somewhat shorter, that night began my renaissance, and here I am all these years later writing about my wine indulgences.  I’ve actually been writing about wine for over eight years, journaling our wine experiences in scrapbook form and these collections have really become the stories of our lives.  They’ve given me a chance to recognize and document special moments for us and also thank those who’ve shared their expertise with me over the years.

At some point during my early wine experimentation, I found out that the Zinfandel grape was the varietal that grew outside my Grandpa Martino’s back door on that arbor (above) under which I’d spent so many hours in my childhood.  I wouldn’t have known that it was this varietal if my dad hadn’t related it to me.  And had we not developed this interest in wines, I’m sure that if he had told me, I wouldn’t have remembered -- or cared.  I also wouldn’t have known that Grandpa, along with the many other Italian winemakers in Roanoke, would go down to the railroad yard when the train cars filled with grapes from California would pull in, to choose just the right combination of Cabernet, Merlot and who knows what other grapes for their own wine making recipes.  My dad told me a lot of great stories about Grandpa’s winemaking before he passed away in September 2006 but none are as special as the one that follows, for it has surely touched my heart as no other ever could.

Dad, Grandpa and Diana circa 1951In 1968, Grandpa Martino moved from the house next to ours to live with Aunt Mary and Uncle Angelo on the south side of Roanoke because being all alone in the home place was just getting too difficult.  After all, there was no indoor plumbing and only the cook stove and an old, oil-burning furnace provided heat against the winter cold.  And so it was that, for some reason, Dad went into Grandpa’s cellar on New Year’s Eve Day that year and noticed one lonely bottle of Grandpa’s wine sitting on the ledge where the wine was kept.  When Dad saw it, he stood frozen for a moment because he realized that he was looking at the last bottle of wine from Grandpa’s last vintage.  So he carefully picked it up and took it with him down to Aunt Mary’s house to give it to Grandpa.  When he got there, he found that Grandpa was alone and he showed him the bottle and said, “Here Pop, you should drink this.  It’s the last one.”

Grandpa said “ No, you take it home with you.”

Dad said “Come on, I’ll open it and we’ll have a glass together.”

Dad told me that he and Grandpa sat there, just the two of them, and finished this incredibly special bottle of wine.  Grandpa passed away the following winter (December 26, 1969).

I hope I live to be very old, as old as Grandpa was and I hope that I continue to experience the wonders of wine, just as he did.  Thus far, I’ve had some exquisite tasting experiences. I’ve enjoyed some excellent wines in many wonderful settings and have countless, special memories of these times.  God willing, I hope to have many, many more.  But I say this without hesitation; I would gladly trade all that I’ve had and all that I will have, to be granted the gift of sitting at that table at Aunt Mary’s house on December 31, 1968 with my Dad and my Grandpa to help them finish that last bottle of wine.


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